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Forensic Laboratory 2030: Scientific Environment

Thu, 12/20/2012 - 6:57am
Michael MountSteve Hackman

What will constitute a modern forensic laboratory in 2030? From its physical manifestation to its legal and scientific mandates, the vision for the ideal forensic laboratory in 2030 will likely be dramatically different from the model of today.

Forensic Laboratory 2030
This is the first in a four-part series that reveals how forensic laboratories might be designed in the future based on the findings of the research survey undertaken by SmithGroupJJR—Forensic Laboratory 2030. This article will examine projected changes within the forensic science environment. Future articles will focus on investigative activities, physical environment, and workplace activities within the forensic industry.

Over a two year period, crime lab directors and managers throughout the country were polled with an online survey and personal interviews. The resulting data was collected and organized under the following four categories:

  1. Scientific Environment. Identified future trends in laboratory organizational structure, effects of the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, anticipated future challenges, influence on forensic facilities, and emerging technologies.
  2. Investigation Activities. Explored laboratory investigation methods, advancement in automated technology, use of computers, electronic communication, and the effect of new procedures and equipment on lab practices.
  3. Physical Environment. Compared influencing factors for laboratory configuration, casework systems, security protocols, specialty needs, and collaboration goals.
  4. Workplace Activities. Focused on preferences in current lab design, vision for the ideal lab facility, sustainability and energy efficiency, staff amenities, and future challenges.

The following facility stats from participants reveal a representative range of demographics, facility sizes, and ages, including historical and projected growth for staff and caseloads.

  • Facility size (gross square feet) ranged from 8,500 GSF to 190,000 GSF with an average of 43,000 GSF
  • Facility age ranged from 5 years to 35 years with an average of 19 years
  • Staff increases over the last 10 years averaged 23% and are projected to grow 44% over the next 10 years
  • Caseloads (differentiated from actual tests) are projected to increase on average by as much as 33% over the next 5 years.

While these and other metrics collected highlight general trends within the forensic community, it is important to note that every facility is unique to its own location and organizational structure—there is no single facility which represents an idealized “average” or one-size-fits-all solution to the complex challenges within the forensic community. The outcome of this survey illustrates the unique pressures and critical requirements that shape the Forensic Laboratory 2030.

 

Laboratory Reorganization
The future is likely to bring changes to the basic organization of the forensic lab. According to the survey, high costs of maintaining multiple services has driven many facilities to focus on the core sections that will contribute to solving violent crimes. Therefore, high growth lab sections such as DNA, digital forensics, and drug analysis will stay on the rise. Since the mid-1980s, DNA instrumentation has consistently advanced in technology, leading to broader applications for analysis and increasingly shorter turn-around times. In fewer than 15 years, digital forensics, or “computer crimes,” has experienced rapid growth and change due to the development of new digital devices. Starting simply with the examination of computers and “floppy” disks, this laboratory section now deals with myriad items of digital evidence, including tapes, CDs, DVDs, flash drives, Blu-ray discs, cameras, cell phones, photocopiers, scanners, smartphones, and tablets. This being a digital age, the survey results project the trend to continue. Additionally, drug analysis sections will grow based on synthetic drug use and the anticipated legalization of some controlled substances. These high growth lab sections will have an impact on the staff, instrumentation needs, and resulting space requirements in the Forensic Laboratory 2030.

Figure 1: Growth projection for forensic sections by order of magnitude in the year 2030.

Figure 1: Growth projection for forensic sections by order of magnitude in the year 2030.

According to the survey responses, low growth laboratory sections will be trace evidence, latent prints, and questioned documents. These sections are increasingly being consolidated into regionalized laboratories which provide for the necessary amount of caseload to maintain a workable business model and return on investment. Developing technology that allows DNA to be obtained from a latent print may limit the need for print comparisons even further. In some facilities forensic photography is also merging with digital forensics to maximize cross training and staff productivity.

External Influences
Participants were surveyed about the long term effects of the 2009 Report on Forensic Science by the National Academy of Science (NAS). Among the recommendations for the standardization and improvement of forensic laboratories is the enactment of laws to create a national regulatory organization responsible for monitoring this implementation. Despite the current lack of legislation, there is a trend by many forensic laboratories to voluntarily adopt the NAS goals. In September of 2012, as a step toward operating independently of police and prosecutors, the D.C. Consolidated Forensic Laboratory initiated replacement of police officer/technicians in the Mobile Crime Scene Laboratory with certified and trained civilian technicians. This is much like the structure of labs surveyed in Canada and the United Kingdom.

At least three recommendations from the NAS report have begun to have a significant effect on the administration and organization of forensic laboratories. They include:

  • The removal of local law enforcement control over forensic laboratories, a change that results in restructuring of lab administration as well as the source of funding.
  • Accreditation requirements for the laboratory as well as certification for the forensic analysts and technicians, requiring additional training lab spaces.
  • Uniformity throughout the forensic community of laboratory analysis procedures and services, requiring physical adjustments and changes to accommodate new equipment and procedures.

Forensic Science Challenges
Responses to the future challenges within the scientific environment—source of laboratory funding, management of increased test volume, recruitment of staff, operational changes in evidence handling, and innovations in technology—were broad ranging with an underlying message that facilities require the capability of adapting to unforeseen changes. “Planning for unknown technologies is the key in government funded laboratories for forensics,” indicated Michael Thomas of the National Forensic Science Technology Center. “The challenge is how to accommodate new technologies like automated analysis for DNA investigations in existing space.”

Figure 2: Specialized laboratory support, outfitted for unknown technologies, located adjacent to open laboratory.

Figure 2: Specialized laboratory support, outfitted for unknown technologies, located adjacent to open laboratory.

Forensic procedures and equipment are continuously evolving. Participants reported a decreased use of wet chemistry procedures and an increased use of analytical instrumentation. The use of automated instruments in drug chemistry, toxicology, and DNA analyses has challenged the makeup and operational functions of these sections. Technological advances will inevitably affect the design of forensic lab facilities for the future. Respondents reported that an increased reliance on the use of automation, robotics, and instrumentation will likely continue. These advances will create a need for specialty trained technicians similar to firearms (IBIS technicians) and latent prints (AFIS technicians). As instrumentation advances, additional sequencers and other analytical equipment, unaffordable in the past, will require more space as caseloads, and individual tests, continue to increase.

New technology also has space-saving advantages. Many new instruments require half of the area needed 15 years ago which allows for much needed internal growth within existing budgets and facility constraints. As instruments become more compact and handheld, scientists and investigators can utilize them directly at the crime scene, further changing the make-up of the laboratory. Spaces that were once reserved for larger equipment are being replaced with areas to maintain, calibrate, and repair portable devices. New wireless devices are resulting in faster processes and less paper. These devices will significantly reduce the need for hard copy files, while slightly increasing the space needs for secure server equipment.

 

Figure 3: Instrument lab with adaptable casework systems to meet the needs of new equipment and processes.

Figure 3: Instrument lab with adaptable casework systems to meet the needs of new equipment and processes.

Future Preparation
It is evident from the results of this survey that forensic changes in the scientific environment will parallel technological innovation. These changes will have a significant effect on how a forensic laboratory is designed to accommodate the continuing evolution of information technology. Technology is directly related to the development of instrumentation, automation, databases, crime scene processing, evidence handling, record keeping, as well as the growth of the lab’s digital forensics section. The Forensic Laboratory 2030 will need to accommodate spaces for equipment that is becoming smaller, more portable, and less expensive, while considering how to accommodate emerging processes that do not currently exist.

Developments in technology will influence the basic laboratory organizational structure. Some sections will require space for tremendous growth; others will experience minimal to decreasing demand, resulting in realignment with other lab sections or locations that can provide these critical services. The successful development of Forensic Laboratory 2030 involves adaptation at many levels. It involves not only monitoring the advance of technology, but also the political/legal ramifications of funding, management, and operations. In the next article in this series, investigation activities will be explored and the impact that these changes have on forensic laboratory design.

Michael Mount, AIA, LEED AP, has spent the last 22 years devoted exclusively to forensics, both forensic laboratories and coroner/medical examiner facilities. As the leader of SmithGroupJJR’s team of forensic design specialists, Mount has been involved in the design and planning of more than 50 forensics facilities in the U.S. and abroad. michael.mount@smithgroupjjr.com

Steve Hackman, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal and senior laboratory planner at SmithGroupJJR. He is a member of the firm’s national Science & Technology practice and has more than 25 years of experience in specialized research facilities and high tech environments for corporate, clinical, government, forensic, academic, and institutional clients. steve.hackman@smithgroupjjr.com

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